Every six years, tens of millions of Hindus pour into the northern Indian city of Prayagraj to take a holy dip in the Ganges River. The festival is called the Kumbh Mela, and in its different forms it is consistently the biggest gathering of humanity on the planet. This year, it also coincides with national elections, an opportunity that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his allies have eagerly seized.
They have turned this Kumbh, which is technically only a half Kumbh (more on that later), into the biggest, most lavish and most expensive in Indian history, using it to please their political base and deflect from their growing troubles. It is nearly impossible to take 20 steps along the pilgrimage route without passing a huge sign featuring Mr. Modi’s face or the grinning visage of his close ally, Yogi Adityanath, the monk turned chief minister of this state, Uttar Pradesh. They aren’t technically campaign ads, but billboard after billboard trumpets their accomplishments in all areas of life.